NaNoWriMo: Less Counting, More Dancing

The more people writing, the better! Really, writing should be encouraged. We can never have too many writers, artists, dancers, or musicians. But NaNoWriMo as a Thing To Do has always been kind of lost to me, and as people are posting their word counts on social media, I just can’t help but explain why.

20171108 snoopy writing

You Can’t Count your Way towards Better Art

NaNoWriMo is about writing 50,000 words by the end of the month of November, which means writing approximately 1667 words every day.  But 50,000 words doesn’t necessarily equal a novel. Some stories can be told effectively and be commercially successfully in a lot fewer words. Many stories take a lot more.

Honestly, 50,000 for a “novel” might be a little on the short side. Good for children’s books, or if you’re Vonnegut or Hemingway.  J.K. Rowling’s books started shorter (Sorcerer’s Stone was 77,000) and then, as they got interesting, became decent-sized. Four NaNoWriMo’s worth.

A great painting is not made better by having more paint strokes. A symphony isn’t better by having 50,000 notes as opposed to 35,522 or 272,395. But NaNoWriMo by nature is built around counting. It was started as a community project to help a handful of San Francisco writers practice their craft in miserable weather. It clearly struck a nerve, since so many people want to participate. But the participation effort is about writing a certain number. The helpers include several ways to count your words or build word count apps. That’s what apps do.

Consider the handy word count chart created by Hawthorn Mineart:

20171108 wordcounts


Twitter was invented as a piece of technology that packaged 140 character counts efficiently to be distributed widely. It wasn’t designed as a way for people to communicate effectively. No one sat in a room and thought, How can people talk to more people better? They built a technology thing,and then thought, How can we sell this? No one thought, What if our leaders use it to start nuclear war? or Is there a way to build in safeguards so that people don’t use it for death threats or to hound people into committing suicide or so that it doesn’t blow up technology we need for other things? Technology which counts things can’t drive useful or positive behavior.

But, as with anything else in our modern world, the numbers are driving the effort at this point. NaNoWriMo wants subscribers and registrants, so it can boast about the number. The picture on the .org website is about how many people worldwide are playing the game. You win by posting your 50,000 words on the website. Everyone who reaches 50,000 wins. What if you only wrote 35,000, but it was great stuff?

Novels are Not Character Studies

To be perfectly honest, I was looking for prompts for this week’s blog. After all the travel, I’m a little written out, so I wanted to oil the muse. Needed to Prime the Pump. I do believe in Prompts! (Today’s DailyPost wordpress prompt is Dancing, by the way, but by that point I already planned to take NaNoWriMo to the woodshed.)

What I found weird about the NNWM prompts was the excessive focus on character studies. Write about how your protagonist experienced Halloween. Where do they get their hair cut? What games do they like to play? Where did they go to college? What do their cousins do?

I get that we’re trying to prime the pump by thinking about writing. But writing day after day about what your character likes or dislikes doesn’t create a novel. Or a short story. Or a mystery. Your story needs a beginning, middle, and end. People have to do something.

I thought there’d be more prompts about “How does your character get out of a predicament…” or “What happens in the scene where one character finds out something they didn’t know that propels them into a tailspin…” or “What does your character’s nemesis do to cause trouble?”  Maybe it’s just me, but plot involves characters doing something. Not how they celebrated Halloween.

Let’s say you’re about to write Slaughterhouse Five, Anna Karenina, or Of Mice and Men. How does knowing where they went to college fit in here? You can’t just insert character trait A into plot element B. Stories don’t work that way.

Writing is Not really a Community Exercise, Except…

The other key aspect to NNWM is doing it as part of a community. There is a ton of emphasis around signing up, posting your status or work, finding a coach, getting together with others, and so on. We are a social culture, and we are increasingly interested in micro-sharing our daily lives. I don’t believe in telling everyone what I ate for breakfast, but I’m old-fashioned, I understand that.

I also know that sometimes telling people how you are doing prompts others to encourage you, and writers need encouragement, oh yes we do. Getting together with others to share work can be helpful. It depends. Encouragement is good. Feedback is harder to ask for, harder to give, and harder to receive. What if the thing you’re writing isn’t designed for the audience you share it with? What if there’s jealousy, by you or others of your work? Or of your ability to hit the word count?

I think writing is like dancing. When we adults dance — when we don’t do it much — we’re self-conscious. Children dance and write without thinking too much about it. We worry about our feet a lot and what other people think about us. The fact is that good dancing is a function of practice. Any dancer will tell you that — even if they have natural talent — they dance well because they dance a lot!

It can be helpful to some people to go dancing with friends, just so you can be awkward together. On the other hand, if your friends dance better than you do, or if they get asked to dance more often, then… it’s a bust. At the end of the day, too, you have to do the dancing, not your friends.

I found this post on dancing etiquette and really liked the “advice to beginner’s section” (scroll down to the bottom, past the parts about not bringing handbags or drinks onto the dance floor):

It’s going to take you a couple of hundred hours of practice and dancing to become a competent dancer. Let me suggest to you that in a thousand or so dances you will have a much better idea what you’re doing. So relax into the process.

It’s going to be frustrating as heck at first. You’ll be awkward and people won’t want to dance with you because you lack skill and competence. But we all start here…don’t worry about it. It’s a part of the process.

The trick is to dance every opportunity you get. You have one thousand dances to get through in order to be competent, so get to it. You can do it in three months or 5 years…your choice. Dance every opportunity you make and before you know it you’ll be through the learning curve and finding dancing more enjoyable.
–Clinton Collier

Write Every Day, Dance Every Day

Putting in the hours is really the secret. It’s not about 1667 words a day, but about accumulating the hours. I had an excellent writing teacher once who said you should write every day. You may not know what to write about, and it usually takes a while to get worked up into a topic. You can start by writing about anything — it could be the prompts if you like — but when you Prime the Pump, you have to be prepared to throw out the sludge that may come out first.

Then, you have to learn how to edit and fix your errors. There doesn’t seem to be a NaDeEdMo but there should be (National December Editing Month). That’s the problem with the word count notion. You may have to throw out half of your 50,000 words. The NNWM folks talk about using other months for that function, but there’s no celebration of it or explanation of how.

Meanwhile, you just need to write every day. You can dance while you’re doing it. Well, dance in your mind anyway. The key is to put in the time and the practice because writing like any other art form is about improving with practice. Malcolm Gladwell wrote that you have to practice your craft for 10,000 hours to get proficient. Artists, actors, athletes, everybody has to put in the time, whether they start with a little talent to begin with or a lot.

I’ll let you in on My Secret. I started writing this blog almost two years ago now, and I force myself to post something every Wednesday, every week. That’s my deadline. Not according to word count (although, by the way, that’s exactly 1667 words today) but a complete blog. Every week. No excuses. Over time, I built it into my schedule. Deadlines work.

When you write, do it until you know you’re done for the day, like how you stop dancing when the music stop. Start every day, prime the pump, get going, and put words onto the page until you feel them moving to the rhythm of your mind. When the music stops, go back and look over those words and move them around until they’re better. Get rid of the parts where you stepped on someone’s toes or moved left when you should have moved right. That’s part of the 10,000 hours, too.

It’s good that we’re writing together as a community and encouraging each other. I applaud your desire to write a novel, or whatever (why a novel anyway? short stories really are just fine). I encourage you to meet the word count if that makes you feel more accomplished. But don’t sweat the numbers. Just keep writing.

And don’t look at your feet so much.*

20171108 snoopy dancing


*Feet — that’s a writing joke, get it? See, feet refer to poetic…oh, never mind.

Today’s DailyPost word is Dancing.


0 Replies to “NaNoWriMo: Less Counting, More Dancing”

  1. I’m not a fan of the arbitrary goals that can be a take over the process. Words for the sake of words is not my definition of “novel writing.”

    But here’s what I like about NaNoWriMo, especially for people who have day jobs – it’s permission to put time toward the goal. It prompts the conversation with family about taking the time, creating the space and it requires the writer to create an expectation of herself to actually put seat in chair and produce. At that level, who cares what comes out the other side? Without the step of saying, “I am going to write” the essential preparation to do so may never happen for some. For a lot of people I know that’s what NaNoWriMo means. I hope that along the way everyone reaches that magical state where dancing and making word goals are the same thing.

  2. Well, leave it to an established writer to point out quite succinctly how NNWM should be handled, so you’re right, of course, but then if I didn’t complain about NNWM, I wouldn’t have had anything to put in my blog to reach my daily goal, would I?

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